With LEGO Dimensions and Disney Infinity lost to oblivion and Skylanders on an indefinite hiatus, is the toys to life trend finally dead and buried? Jack Ridsdale investigates the new paradigms taking the genre to the next level.
While it may feel like a lifetime ago, the realisation of Disney Infinity’s closure was only a mere six months ago. The toys-to-life game series that saw the worlds of Disney, Marvel and Star Wars combined once seemed like the biggest project in the world, bringing the three pillars of family entertainment to gaming and toys in one engaging package. The game won favourable reviews from critics and topped must-have toy list around the holiday season and was by all accounts the hit it was predicted to be. Until it wasn’t anymore.
Somewhere in its three year run, Infinity went from the must-have kids product to yesterday’s news. Many place to blame squarely at oversaturation. The sheer volume of figures pumped out in Infinity’s trademark chunky style became overwhelming for youngsters and collectors alike, while the costs of producing the low-priced figures outweighed their potential profits.
When we look at LEGO Dimensions, a similar pattern can be seen. There was an undeniable over-proliferation of high-quality products that flooded the market but struggled to find the marquee audience they deserved.
However, six years on from the release of the first hit toys to life project, Skylanders, there is another problem facing toys to life, one of innovation. Typical NFC-based games feature limited interactivity between the toy and the gameplay, mostly just manifesting itself through unlocking a playable character or new level that already exists in the game.
Elsewhere, developers are looking at new ways that physical products can interact with virtual worlds in new and interesting ways. One such product is Lightseekers, created in collaboration with TOMY and game developer PlayFusion.
Mark Gerhard, founder of the company and one its chief innovators describes the disconnect that occurred with audiences when toys to life began to turn stagnant.
“The multi-billion dollar toys to life genre has been extremely successful with hundreds of millions of toys sold, but there hasn't been any meaningful innovation in this category over the past six years.,” explains Gerhard. “For the most part, the toys have just been static figurines that unlock additional video game content on consoles. New entrants all seemed to use the same blueprint, just overlaying their own IP, which led to inevitable cannibalisation margin erosion and also consumer fatigue.” These sentiments are echoed throughout the games industry with some likening the trend to the fleeting success of rhythm action games in the early 2010s.
“Storage is less of a problem with four- inch tall figurines, but then again there’s a much larger quantity of the things,” comments Jem Alexander, editor of game development magazine Develop. “And the amount of content it would add to games such as LEGO Dimensions and Disney Infinity was becoming less and less worth the cost of admission. Perhaps development of new assets, levels and characters wasn’t being covered by the sale of the toys. Perhaps the sheer number of different figures and add-on packs was cannibalising its own market. Either way, it’s an easy decision to make to cut losses and stop the experiment.”
From a retail perspective, indie retailers have seen a lack of support from Disney and LEGO alike, with the companies instead focusing on targeting video game fans and those that shop primarily online.
“LEGO promised to supply directly for independents such as myself when Dimensions was still going,” explained Mitch Brown, owner of pop culture and geek gear retailer Darth’s Hutt, “but after the initial meeting I never heard from them again.”
“The indies were very much shut out of it,” continues Brown. “A lot of these companies forget where the roots are. I also think the LEGO Dimensions was a bit too much of a complicated ask for people to keep track of.”
Elsewhere, Nintendo’s amiibos remain the only traditional NFC-based toys to life project still going strong – perhaps due to Nintendo’s savvy tactic of keeping product scarce, while the in-game items are spread across their entire catalogue. “The house of Mario also seems to limit stock,” adds Develop’s Alexander. “A perceived shortage makes them more collectable which, along with the fact there are fewer of them in the market, makes it more likely they’ll sell out.”
With new innovative projects on the horizon including the likes of Starlink and Lightseekers, as well as smaller connected play titles in the board game space like Beasts of Balance and Oniri Islands, it is clear that while toys to life may be dead, the connected play space is springing to life. “The genre needed a reset,” says Gerhard. “We believe we’ve created something new and magical with Lightseekers, disrupting the category and creating a whole new market."